Baroque Architecture: Everything You Need to Know

For those that love a performance, perhaps no building style is more theatrical than Baroque architecture. “The origins of the word ‘Baroque’ are not entirely clear, but it is generally associated with irregularity in forms as well as opulence,” says Laura Foster, an architectural historian and professor at John Cabot University whose research focuses on Baroque architecture. Born in Italy in the late 16th century and flourishing throughout certain parts of Europe, the style was characterized by grandeur and a distinct dramatic flair. In this guide from AD, learn just how Baroque architecture came to be, discover famous examples of the style, and study what exactly makes the look different from other ornamented aesthetics. 

What is Baroque architecture? 

Strictly speaking, Baroque architecture refers to an opulent architectural style born in Italy in the late 16th century. “It’s a very broad term used for European architecture of the 17th and early 18th centuries,” Foster explains. As Merriam Webster defines it, the building style “is marked generally by use of complex forms, bold ornamentation, and the juxtaposition of contrasting elements often conveying a sense of drama, movement, and tension.” The architectural style is the structural manifestation of a larger movement in art and design—commonly called the Baroque period—which also included similarly elaborate and dramatic work in the visual arts and music. 

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in A Coruña, Spain

Photo: Cristian Leyva/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Often, Baroque architects would employ elaborate motifs and decorations in their work with an emphasis on organic, curving lines and bright colors. “The term Baroque was initially used as an epithet to describe buildings whose design strayed from the principles established during the Renaissance,” Foster adds. The style spread primarily throughout the 17th century in Europe, with particular prominence in Germany, and even made its way to colonial South America. Late Baroque work, which emerged in the mid to late 18th century, is often referred to as Rococo style—or Churrigueresque in Spain and Spanish America. This iteration of the style was even more ornamented and elaborate. 

History of Baroque architecture

Unlike other architectural styles, Baroque aesthetics didn’t come to be just because of a change in cultural tastes or ideologies. Rather, the catalyst for the emergence of Baroque buildings was the ongoing tension between the Catholic Church and Protestant Reformers. “The origins of Baroque architecture are often associated with religious conditions beginning in the late 16th century,” Foster says. At this time, Protestant believers had rejected the authority of the Roman Pope and disavowed many Roman Catholic teachings. This was known as the Protestant Reformation.

Known as the Counter-Reformation, Baroque architecture was part of the Church’s campaign to entice congregants back into Catholic worship. By constructing churches to inspire awe and emotion, Catholics believed they could attract parishioners back to them. The church commissioned architects to reimagine many of the elements of Renaissance architecture—like domes and colonnades—and make them grander and more dramatic. Inside, almost all design decisions were made to entice visitors to look up, with the goal to make worshipers feel as if they were looking into heaven. Quadratura or trompe-l’oeil paintings on the ceilings or winding columns that evoked upward movement were often employed as part of this. 

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